Saturday, February 1, 2014

Old English and Other Sins

One of the things that makes me cringe when I read my early writing is my inflated language and tendency to overuse adverbs.

Instead of saying, "He shivered," I might instead write, "Without thinking, he shivered unwittingly, sending a chill up and down his spinal cord."

For some reason, and I think this is fairly common, I believed that the fancier the language, the better received the work would be. I had excellent English teachers who encouraged me to choose strong, straight-forward words rather than flowery prose. Still, I managed to...

insert within my initial manuscripts verbosity fit to rankle even the most patient, longsuffering, and nurturing of English teachers. 

See what I mean? I think it comes also from reading too much. Can you read too much? Probably not in general, but if you read too much of the classics, or of fairy tales, or of anything old, you're likely to run into the same problem I had: a propensity toward flowery language and grotesque verbosity, the likes of which are rarely seen this side of 1800.

Sneaky little, old phrases and usages may find themselves squashed between your more modern lines of dialogue... like, "Upon seeing her, he ducked behind the conveniently located gumdrop barrel." Or maybe... "Initially he stiffened before softening under her magnanimous touch."  

Now, I'm not saying these are wrong ways of writing. I'm simply saying they are a very specific style of writing, and as writers we need to be careful our style of writing is conducive to the genre and age category. If you're writing regency romance, for instance, ignore this post entirely. Or go laugh to yourself about how liberating it is to use the word "thine" without having to mask it with irony.

But if you happen to write for kids, consider conscientiously filling your own mind with kid speak so that what seeps out when you sit down to write is more... palatable to your chosen audience.

What do you think? Have you ever read an old classic and wished children's writers still wrote like L. Frank Baum or Lewis Carroll?


  1. My writing (particularly when it comes to things like essays, letters, and the like) has always been much more formal than either fiction or my speech. That sort of thing does creep into my fiction from time-to-time, however. It's hard to keep out, as I guess I was paying attention in school and that's how they wanted us to write.

    By the way, who is the guy in the image? He looks familiar, but I can't remember if it's because I've seen him used for these things before, or if it's because he's famous in his own right.

    1. I don't actually know who he's supposed to be. I imagine he's from a famous painting of which I don't know the name. :) I know that's a huge culture fail for me, but I do know what the lyrics are from:

      [Chorus Busta Rhymes]
      Look at me now, look at me now
      Oh, I'm gettin paper
      Look at me now
      Oh, look at me now

      Read more: Chris Brown - Look At Me Now Lyrics | MetroLyrics

  2. That's an interesting one because I'm currently writing historical fiction for YA audiences (not as boring as it sounds, I promise!) So kid speak is totally out unless it fits with the right period, but I do have to balance the accurate with the accessible very carefully. I have found that simple phrasing is essential, but I like to pepper my paragraphs with the appropriate flavour of the time so I don't lose the historical feel. I don't necessarily think kids picking up a few nicely chosen flowery words is a bad thing either!

    1. Awesome! That would definitely be a good time to ignore my advice completely. :)

      I agree about the spicy vocab words, so long as it's done suavely and doesn't come across as overly didactic. As you can see, I wrote this blog post mostly for myself as a reminder for me to keep it simple.

  3. Hi Katrina, just stopping by to say how delightful your blog is. Thanks so much for sharing. I have recently found your blog and am now following you, and will visit often. Please stop by my blog and perhaps you would like to follow me also. Have a wonderful day. Hugs, Chris


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